My boss said I couldn’t do it. My friends said I’d blow it.
With my penchant for pinot, late-night pizzas and my Princes Hill pad, they said, there was absolutely no way in hell I could live off Newstart. Not for a day.
But I was determined to do the impossible – live off the meagre sum of Newstart for a fortnight.
This was not my first rodeo; I had lived off the payments for two years when I was studying and working as a casual in retail.
The dollars that dropped into my account every second Thursday helped me get through slow winters at the shop while I finished my degree part-time.
But that was two years ago, at the time I was paying $420 a month for the ‘Preston Palace’ that came with holes in the roof, mould that seeped into our clothes and no heating.
With all the current Newstart chatter I decided to opt back into poverty – to see how ‘liveable’ the safety net actually is.
I gave myself the full individual payment and rent allowance – $692.90 all up.
There is absolutely no way someone living off Newstart could afford an inner-city house, even an old five-bedroom share house like mine.
So I deducted the average fortnightly rent paid by those on Newstart – $456.45.
Leaving me with $236.45 for the duration of the challenge. That’s $16.88 a day.
At the start I was confident, almost cocky. I bought a $12 beer and thought nothing of it.
But then I lost my phone charger. My shampoo dried up. I needed to feed myself three times a day and get around.
The stress seeped in.
It’s a feeling 25-year-old Rhys Walker has daily. He said he barely gets by.
“Even for people who don’t have mental health conditions, living on Newstart, sorry, subsisting on Newstart, is a living hell filled with stress,” Mr Walker said.
The Brisbane man said he gets food hampers, uses Afterpay to buy clothes and budgets $60 a month for food – just to make it through each week.
“I go to Coles and Woolies at 8pm on Friday and Saturday nights to look for heavily marked-down produce,” he said.
“I also use websites like Frugal Feeds to find bargains when I’m too tired to cook.
“One big thing I do is collect cans when I go walking to take to the refund scheme and get some extra cash.”
As the days of my Newstart challenge rolled on, I remembered how exhausting it was. Watching every cent was mentally draining.
You go to multiple supermarkets and meticulously plan each meal. One evening, I bought a brown onion for 73 cents which derailed my budget.
But unlike people actually seeking a job, I went to work each day, where it was warm and I didn’t have to pay for heating.
I charged my phone and sucked up the office Wi-Fi. It was a welcoming distraction from my dwindling bank account.
One lunchtime we had free pizza. A few times my boss took pity and took me out for coffee. They were little luxuries.
Other than that I didn’t drink coffee – I couldn’t spare the change.
I did try to give up my other major vice – but on day nine I cracked and bought a packet of cigarettes for a whopping $31 (I know, I know …).
I probably could have done without the $8 bottle of wine, too.
I usually eat out a couple of times a week, and I buy my lunch when I forget to pack it. But on Newstart, there is no financial room for mistakes.
I foraged supermarkets for bargains, planned meals days in advance and froze leftovers.
Eventually I got sick of eating noodles – and actually fell ill from eating a week-old shepherds pie.
One night I broke. Instead of going home to my Stan free trial (not that I could really afford the home Wi-Fi) I went out for dinner with a mate.
A plate of falafels, and $14.30 later, I was completely over budget.
By day eight I was climbing into dumpsters in search of food (something I used to do regularly while I was living on Newstart).
I dodged tram ticket inspectors when it was raining, and walked 50 minutes to work other days to save a few bucks.
Then came an email from my housemate. It was the electricity bill – $122.33 for my share. And with that, it was game over.
But that was the thing – I got to tap out after two weeks. I paid my bill and went back to my salaried life.
Others I’ve spoken to don’t have that option – they’re stuck with the difficult task of just trying to get by.
Every little expense bringing you closer to falling through the cracks.
Perth-based Sarah Lane, 41, doesn’t even know if she’ll have a house in two weeks.
Ms Lane is in the process of moving. She’s crunched the numbers and needs $2128.10.
“Nearly 12 months ago I secured this rental, but the property is being taken back by the owner. I have to move in 10 days,” she said.
“I’ve considered going into my super and taking it out on hardship, but I need that. I haven’t worked in four years, I have a spinal injury.”
For Ms Lane, this move could easily make her homeless.
“I’m going back to couch-surfing again to avoid homelessness. You can’t live on Newstart. There is no way to survive.”